Less Farmland or More Density

Whether Hamilton will expand onto more farmland or accommodate growth with higher densities will be decided by February.

Whether Hamilton will expand onto more farmland or accommodate growth with higher densities will be decided by February. Public consultation meetings will start November 26, but there’s strong pressure on council to continue expanding the urban area to accommodate the additional 200,000 residents that the province forecasts will move in by 2041.

City staff and consultants updated councillors last month on choices between additional sprawl on rural lands or higher populations in the current urban area. Provincial rules require at least half of all new growth to take place within built–up areas of the city, but council could choose to aim higher if it wants to preserve more rural lands or even request a lower target. 

Heather Travis, the city’s project manager for the growth strategy, said avoiding any urban boundary would bump up the target to 80%. The remaining fifth can likely be located on undeveloped lands that are already inside the current urban zone.

If that target isn’t adopted and more expansion is at least part of council’s answer to growth, there is also a choice about how dense that should be. Outside the built–up area the city could either stick with the previous provincial government obligation of at least 80 residents/jobs per hectare or follow the Ford government’s much lower requirement of 50 per hectare.

The lower council goes on each of these choices, the more rural land will become subdivisions. With the central choice between more density or more sprawl, the outcome will determine much about Hamilton’s future — including infrastructure spending, traffic congestion, transit feasibility and climatic impacts.

At the top of the greenfield expansion list are the 1259 hectare Elfrida lands — an L–shaped block lying south and east of the intersection of Rymal Road and Upper Centennial Parkway that planners say could house 80,000 people. Competing (or additional) choices include 380 hectares along Twenty Road on the east side of Upper James, and 180 hectares near the airport whose owners forced the current review through a 2015 Ontario Municipal Board decision.

The hopes of all these land speculators were likely buoyed by the staff and consultant presentations even though no decisions were made at the October 21 meeting. That’s mainly because consultant Antony Lorius argued that putting even half of new residents inside the built–up area is “a stretch goal” given his assessment of market demand. 

He called the 50% built–up target “the absolute high end” that could be achieved although he acknowledged that Hamilton hit that mark in 2018. Lorius argued that market demand remains strong for single–family housing and if Hamilton doesn’t provide for such low–density residential development then that growth will go to other municipalities. 

“People are still driving for affordability,” he declared. “It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been practicing and recently we’ve seen an emerging pattern of much more rapid growth in smaller communities within the extended commuter–shed of the Greater Golden Horseshoe.” 

His presentation warned against requiring higher density on greenfield lands because that could compete with intensification in the downtown. “The higher the target, the higher the share of townhouses and multiple dwellings,” Lorius warned, “possibly competing with intensification units, and not adequately supplying the low density market.”

However, most of the council questions in the workshop focused on whether the growth forecasts are accurate, the costs of growth, and how to ensure that roads are built widened roads in advance.

November 26 public consultations start 2–4 and 6–8 at the David Braley Centre downtown at Bay and Main. It is uncertain if they will directly ask whether residents prefer more loss of farmland or more dense development. V

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